Review Summary: Learn to appreciate the void
The National have always been haunted by the backhanded compliment that their albums are 'growers', but I don't buy it. I bought High Violet
on a whim and a love of 'Fake Empire', and I was immediately convinced it was the best album I'd ever heard; the sophisticated and layered songwriting combined with the stark lyrical imagery was mysterious and addicting. 'Fake Empire' is subdued only for Bryan Devendorf to briefly rev up before delivering a head spinning performance of speed and precision. 'Secret Meeting' opens with raucous guitar jangle. So yeah, grower❓ I think it's just more polite than saying that you'll either love or hate this band, and there's certainly truth to that, as The National play to nobody's expectations but their own.
Of course, it is absolutely old hat to debate or even mention that The National release 'growers', but it's on my mind just about every time I listen to this album. Contrary to my instant love affair with the 3 releases preceding this, this one sure took a pretty damn long time to get to me, registering as a dull and lethargic slump for about 4 years. Granted, The National being one of my favorite bands gave it the chance to grow in the first place, but it's more than that. I grew along with this album. I heard High Violet
when I was just 18, and let's be real, it's an extremely angsty album, basically high-concept anger dressed up in destructive metaphors about nature and ***ing zombies. It resonated so clearly because I was pissed off and pretentious, a chip on my shoulder and Infinite Jest in my lap. High Violet
is the flood, and Trouble Will Find Me
is the devastation that follows, when the air is still and you step out to survey the wreckage. That feeling that follows an outburst, when your lungs seem to shrink and your chest balloons with cold air❓ Humiliation, indeed. There's a release found in the catharsis of anger that Trouble Will Find Me
refuses to indulge. It is the band's darkest and most desolate album lyrically and musically because there are fewer jokes to hide behind, because the music is feathery and fragile. It is Anhedonia: The Album, and I simply wasn't ready for it until I was.
There's an engaging contrast to the raw lyricism and the effortless, almost diaphanous music that kept drawing me back until I realized it's another perfect National album for reasons that are thrillingly against type for the band. In a subversive twist, it is all the things detractors claim this band are: wallowing, miserable, slow, simple. Previous releases were always questioning and unsure of themselves, but Trouble Will Find Me
takes a long look in the mirror and in no uncertain terms does not like what it sees. It's unique to their discography in the fact that it knows at all times what it is and what it's about emotionally. It seems to alternate song by song between more melodic offerings and more emotionally driven dirges. The fluidity and lighters in the air openheartedness of 'I Need My Girl' gives way to the tense and chilly 'Humiliation', 'Fireproof' floats on a bed of plucky finger picking and dour strings and then 'Sea of Love' storms in with thundering drums and a playful guitar lick and wrestles the album back to the ground. The mood remains the same throughout (barring the overly schmaltzy and out of place 'Heavenfaced') but the band continuously find subtle ways to tweak the delivery, making for a more varied and invested listen than it gets credit for.
In the end, though, the greatest display of all these seemingly contradictory but ultimately complimentary emotions and methods is Matt Berninger, who gives the best performance of his career lyrically and vocally. The uncharacteristically crowd pleasing balladry of 'I Need My Girl' has proved to be divisive but Berninger gives the song an extra dimension twofold: his voice warbles and practically cracks under the weight of the longing and loss he expresses, "you got out and said you're sorry to the vines and no one saw it
" a spiritual sequel to "I have weird memories of you
" in the way that it so simply but profoundly conveys the intimate bond two people can share. There are numerous overt references to famous songs and musicians, and Berninger slyly finds new ways to frame using music as a medication for pain. I believe it's no mistake that he warns "don't swallow the cap
" before advising to "play 'Let It Be' or 'Nevermind
'". He finds momentary refuge but no answers, and knows better than to keep trying. There are
jokes(this is still Matt Berninger we're talking about here), but they are decidedly tossed off, told with a grimace and mostly muttered to himself. It is telling that he even admits "there are some things I should never laugh about in front of family
". He is down with his demons, and music and jokes only offer up so much respite before the next sobering realization, "I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls at the park
" existing in the same song that ends with him lamenting "you said it would be painless, it wasn't that at all.
That the album ends with its most plainly beautiful and conciliatory song doesn't read as trite or predictable because Berninger shows how acceptance can be both freeing and draining. You can unburden yourself and let go of some things, but forgiveness is hard to find, and there are things you will never forget, that you hold onto as armor or ammo. He surrenders to acceptance, but on his own terms. The song fades out on a cloud of ethereal horns and sustained guitar notes, not graceless but with a knowing wisdom hard to find.